Close to 200 students, parents, alumni and other well-wishers filled a suburban Chicago event hall to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Sunday gala came after a year of planning by parents and University of Illinois alumni looking for a way to mark Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Dovid and Goldie Tiechtel’s leadership and contributions to Jewish life on campus.

In honoring the Tiechtels with a Humanitarian Award, the committee noted the Tiechtels continuing efforts at strengthening Jewish pride among a cross-section of students, from welcoming fraternity brothers and sorority sisters to the Chabad House for Shabbat dinner to taking groups of civic-minded collegians to Berlin to assist the local Jewish community.

Ellen Forgan, whose son Jake Shulkin will be graduating this May, said that she decided to co-chair the event - dubbed “Toasting Chabad of Champaign” - after experiencing a little of the same transformation her son went through in his four years at the school. When she would come to visit Shulkin, she pointed out, there was always a place for her at the Tiechtels’ table.

“Four years ago, I didn’t know what Chabad was,” said Forgan, who co-chaired the ceremony with Steven Cohn, a University of Illinois graduate.

Today, however, she views the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries as “gracious, welcoming wise men and women who are emissaries of Jewish heritage.”

At the evening’s outset, guests mingled with the Chabad House’s student leadership, several of whom had created booths highlighting the different activities managed by the center. The exhibits concentrated on social interaction, educational enrichment, holiday programming and the work of the greater family of campus-based Chabad Houses around the world.

After they made their way to dinner, the guests were treated to a 10-minute video showcasing the Jewish center’s achievements. In the background, sentiments from current students attesting to the Chabad House’s role in their lives joined comments given by university president B. Joseph White.

Seamless Evening

In the video, White not only congratulated the Tiechtels for their fifth anniversary on campus, but also credited the Chabad House for inspiring so many students.

Rabbi Tiechtel, said White, “is a magnet.” It is so important for to students to have a “place to go where they can be comfortable, but also challenged.”

Throughout the affair, the Chicago-based a cappella group Listen Up! provided musical accompaniment.

Commodities broker Yra Harris delivered the keynote address.

“The evening was seamless,” said Forgan.

Students brought their parents to the gala dinner.
Students brought their parents to the gala dinner.

In addition to the Tiechtels, other attendees received awards. The Chabad House’s first Young Leadership Award went to Eric and Debbie Schames, a young couple who frequented the center several years ago after meeting at a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin as teenagers.

When they were dating, Eric Schames attended Washington University in S. Louis, and visited his future wife at the University of Illinois every weekend.

“I was at the University of Illinois more than I was at Washington,” quipped Schames. “We spent a lot of time at Chabad and had good times there.”

With respect to the Tiechtels, said Schames, the couplet felt like “part of their family.”

A high moment of the evening came as university chancellor Richard Herman took the podium to address the audience. In his remarks, the recipient of the dinner’s Founder’s Award, said that the Chabad House’s contribution to campus life “is made up of many poignant moments.”

It’s not only “the heart of Jewish student life at Illinois,” said Herman. “But [it’s] also the heart of the Jewish community” in Urbana-Champaign.

As for himself, added the chancellor: “I depend and lean on it.”